When hearing Australia you most probably picture a Kangaroo hopping through the hot outback under a blue sky. Hold that thought for a moment. Forget about sunshine, as for the first few days we had rain and cold wind instead. A tropical storm crashed into a South Western cold front and Francien and I scrambled for warm rain coats. We arrived in the middle of it: rain and below 15 C temperatures!!! The coldest summer in recorded history. Throw in flooded roads and you can get the picture. We took it slow driving along dangerous roads. At many low-land areas and river-crossing-bridges the roads were flooded. We waited for other cars to arrive when we could not see how deep the water was. Unsealed roads were unpassable.
But the story does not end here.
At immigration in the Perth International Airport, a Beagle dog searched us for paper money and later we made stand in line to be sniffed by a Labrador searching for food. We rented a car and set off in Southern direction straddling the coastline of Western Australia.
We spent one day in the famous Margret River wine area, but it felt too commercial, too touristic; its wineries nothing special (oops, now I compare this with the wonderful South African Cape wine area’s….). Rather disappointed we drove to the beach instead. From a high cliff we watched in awe the surfers in the stormy seas on Surfers Point. This is one of the worlds ‘Top 10 Big Wave locations’, attracting surfers from around the world. Still cold weather, Francien and I huddled on a bench with the telling inscription ‘in memory of the surfers who caught their last wave’. An exciting but dangerous place for surfers!
The next day further down South we waded through the shallow waters on the white beaches in Hamelin Bay Marine Park. Wild sting rays (eagle rays up to 1.5-meter diameter) swam right up to us and we touched them, some even wanting to play with us. But we did watch those 20-centimetre-long poisonous stings on their tails, you never know… Woow, that was an amazing experience.
At the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse the Southern Ocean meets the Indian Ocean. We climbed up 40 meters and struggled to stand up against the howling winds, enjoying a spectacular view across this treacherous cape. ‘This is exactly on the other side of the world from Washington DC’, our guide paused and continued, ‘you cannot get further away from American politics’, he joked with a big smile on his face.
We continued our journey and the weather improved. It was getting hot and the skies big and blue. 20-Centimetres-long Hookers-Banktia flowers everywhere in the shrub covered (wattles they call it here) bushveld. One early morning we woke up by loud noises of Parrot or Lorikeet type of birds. On Rottnest Island off the coast in Perth, we saw these cute looking Quokkas. And everywhere we went, flies, flies and more flies.
We stopped in Albany, a sea coast village, where the Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog landed in 1616. For the night we checked into the Hotel Albany, with its quirky 1835 architecture, a bar downstairs and dark stuffy rooms upstairs, a wooden balcony overlooking the street. This could have been a hotel from the old 'Wild-West'. Great experience!
From now on we drove inland into the Goldfields. Between Esperance and Kalgoorlie the road was straight, through forests, bushland, rocky hills, salt lakes, grasslands with red dirt and many flooded areas. We had no mobile coverage and the distance to the next town at times was 100 Km. The land started shimmering mirages on the horizon under the scorching sun. It was an unforgiving landscape. Driving across the Australian outback is not your normal road trip. We saw road-trains (trucks with 3 trailers totalling 58 meters) driving on the endless roads. We passed station-gates and cattle pens. The isolation is hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t travelled there. Often the road stretched out in front of us with no signs of human inhabitation as far as we could see. If you have been in the South African Karoo or travelled through Arizona and New Mexico, you can picture what we have seen. And yes, you guessed it, we saw Kangaroos.
'You should not drive too fast, because lots of Emu’s, Camels and Kangaroos cross the road here', the friendly police officer in the middle of nowhere said, 'and therefore I give you a 100 dollar speeding ticket’. (…stop laughing, this was serious….).
Gold mining in this area started at the same time as in the Witwatersrand in South Africa, around 1890. Kalgoorlie is a town left behind after that 19th century gold rush. In the town we saw many aborigines, some drunk, two women fighting, hanging around the mostly deserted streets.
Sidestepping the standard tourist routes, Francien and I popped into a Two Up gambling venue. Seven kilometres outside the town in the middle of the bush there was a 10-meter solid circle on which around 30 people played Two Up. It is a diggers gambling game whereby two coins are tossed in the air and people gamble on two heads or two tails. Rowdy mine workers with weather-beaten and craggy faces, wild tattoos and scruffy beards, some egging on ‘Crocodile Dundee’, held bunches of 50 dollar notes. Philipino girls were betting and aborigines watching. Francien and I sat amid this rough crowd, F.. words used in every sentence. This was not your run-of-the-mill Sunday afternoon relaxing place.
We spent the night at the 19th century Palace Hotel. I sat down on the terrace and watched an aboriginal man sitting down at a table just after a guest had left, to eat the left-overs from the plates and drink the last bits out of the glasses; nobody seemed to bother. The waitress told us that 'brekky' was served at 7:00 in the morning and everyone we talked to called us 'mate'. -Dare I say it to my Aussie friends?; Francien and I had to get used to some of your bizarre slang words.
In Kalgoorlie they still mine gold. Donning safety glasses, Francien and I toured the second biggest goldmine in the world. In this largest man made hole, every day hundreds of 250 Ton trucks haul gold ore from a depth of 500 meters, each truck holding one golf ball of pure gold. The pit is so big ( 3.5 km long and 1.5 km wide) that those giant trucks looked like ants when driving down there: an impressive sight.
Overnight in another Palace Hotel, this time in Southern Cross (population 800) on our way back to Perth. A 1994 excellence award was displayed in the lobby! Breakfast was not served because the fridge did not work, but at least the bed and bathroom was clean. There was no Wi-Fi in the entire town! Nobody on the streets and Francien and I wondered where the people were? Five old scruffy looking workers sat down in the only coffee place, giving them time to catch up. I had some small talk with them, but for the most part their slang was too much for me to understand! It struck me in what different world these guys were living.
The next day Francien and I stopped at the Kokerbin Rock, the third biggest monolith in Australia. It was 35 C and walking on top of the granite rock was tiring. We drank lots of water and enjoyed the views across the bushveld. This rock formation has a 'wave' feature, eroded by water still oozing out, the reason why this monolith and others in Australia are spiritual places for the aboriginals.
It took us another few hours driving until we reached Perth again. This most isolated city in the world is not crowded, modern and looking at the different type of people, very cosmopolitan. We spent a few days with friends in this laid back city on the Swan River before we flew back to Kuala Lumpur.
So what did Francien and I take away from this trip? We drove 3200 Km in 13 days. People were friendly and talkative everywhere we went. We learned that the weather is unpredictable and extreme. Australia is not big, it is enormous and we only saw a tiny part of it!!! We saw beautiful landscapes, but nothing we hadn’t seen before. The fast food chains in the cities, the cleanliness and spacious lay-out of the towns gave this a very American feel.
Francien and I enjoyed our first visit to this continent, especially its fresh and crispy air we longed for coming from the humid tropics ourselves. This country is geared up to handle tourists and we will be back, there is lots more to see.